Given my time constraints as a third-year, I thought that maybe I could change things up — instead of going to an activity to help alleviate stress, I could ask someone older and wiser than me for tips on how to de-stress. And who better to ask for advice than my 79-year-old grandmother? Not only is she one of the calmest people I know, but she has literally no health problems and takes zero medications — an impressive feat for a woman her age. I’ve transcribed this interview-style so I hope you’ll enjoy, take away my grandmother’s advice and go call your own grandparents/elderly familial figures for their advice on how to de-stress and share them in the comments!
Me: Can you introduce yourself to my readers?
Grandmother: My name is Suma and I am 79 years old. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Art History (’58) and a Masters in Economics and Sociology (’60). I received both in India, and was one of the only female scholars in my class. I lived in Mumbai and worked at a bank for a few years, later started a kindergarten program at my house while working as a substitute primary school teacher, and moved to America in 1988. Since then, I’ve been living with you. Cleaning up after you, cooking for you — (big wink).
Me: Okay, okay. So the point of this interview is for you to share some of your coping mechanisms, your ways to de-stress — you’ve had a lot of changes in your life obviously, and you know the rigors of a graduate school program especially being one of the only females in your class. Can you share some with me?
G: This might sound contradictory, but learning — learning, all the time. I wake up in the morning and read Times of India, The New York Times … and just reading about what’s happening in the world to other people, that there’s a world out there bigger than myself. I see bad things happening in the world, and it makes me realize how lucky I am in my life. And I don’t take reading or learning for granted; my parents at first didn’t want me to do anything besides graduate high school — it was only a lot of persuasion and luck that even got me enrolled in a bachelor’s program. My sister didn’t get the chances that I had, so I try and take advantage of it even though I’m not in school anymore.
Me: Wow, well, now I feel bad about all the complaining I do about reading for med school. What other strategies do you use to de-stress … maybe a little less academic-focused?
G: The first thing I do every morning —
Me: Even before reading the papers?
G: Even before reading the papers but after brushing my teeth (pause and laughs) is to pray.
Me: You know, I actually read a recent study published this year on Harvard medical student and faculty experiences of religion and spirituality. It was interesting because it stated religious and spiritual respondents struggled more with issues of personal identity, self-doubt and inadequacy; however, they less often had relationship conflicts within the medical team, work-life imbalance and emotional stress arising from patient suffering. Their religion also influenced their coping strategies during patient encounters.
G: I’m not surprised by that: I’ve been a practicing Hindu my whole life, but I don’t think it’s necessarily made me feel strong all the time. I think, more than anything, being religious has helped guide me and give me an anchor and teach me the importance of other people in my life.
G: I know you’re not particularly religious, and many young people out there aren’t, but if you aren’t religious, you can still meditate. I say my slokas (Sanskrit verses) 101 times every morning and though that may sound like many times, just saying the words comforts me.
Me: I can see that. I feel like there’s something comforting in repetition.
G: Yes. Sometimes, when I pray, I think about how grateful I am to have my family, my friends — everything they’ve done for me, and how I can be a better person for them as well. I thank God for having enriched my life, and hope that he will do the same for everyone around me.
Me: I know that being grateful is something that’s been clinically proven to increase psychological and physical well-being, according to a study I read.
G: It’s not hard to be grateful, after reading the news all the time. I think for me it’s important to make sure I spend time with other people. I’m lucky, I know, because I’ve lived with you for the past 25 years or so, but I have a lot of friends who aren’t as lucky.
Me: I know how some days I can get incredibly lonely after coming back from the hospital and then studying, and it’s sometimes weeks before I can see or talk to any of my friends, which is very different from my first two years of med school or college or high school. I read in a study that chronic loneliness can be associated with poorer physical health, specifically cardiovascular health, and higher levels of distress, so I think even as a medical student, it’s important to carve out a chunk of time to talk to friends, even if it means eating away at study time a little bit.
G: Exactly! Don’t tell your mother I said it’s fine for you to not study though.
Me: Haha. I guess to wrap this up — do you have any other advice you’d want to share with my readers?
G: Life is very, very, very long. Be happy with what you have achieved so far in your life. Be happy that you made it into medical school: think of what the hundreds of people your age would sacrifice to be in your spot! Things that seem terrible to you right now — bad scores or jobs whatever they may be — will not matter in the long run. I promise you. My husband and I came from small Indian villages, but with hard work, perseverance, and above all, honesty, we were able to come here. There were some good times and some awful times, but just know that everything happens for a reason.
Me: Thanks! I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about this. And for my readers — I hope you got some insights from my interview with my grandmother, and I’d encourage all of you to go out and talk to the elderly people in your life, because you never know what words of wisdom they may have to share with you.
A very important topic is that of mental health in medical practitioners, notably medical students. According to a study in the Student British Medical Journal, 30 percent of medical students report having a mental health condition — with a majority of 80 percent stating the level of available support was poor or only moderately adequate. This column was born from these alarming statistics and aims to stimulate conversation on mental health in medical students, from providing suggestions on how to maintain one’s mental health to discussing the taboo and stigma surrounding conversations on mental health in practitioners and students, and how to eliminate it.